On Jan. 1 Lassiter will be the only high school band from Georgia participating in the 104th Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena. Estimates are that the parade will be viewed by over one billion people around the world. Knowing that one billion people were watching me attempt to walk and play a musical instrument at the same time would scare the willies out of me. Not this crowd.
The director of bands at Lassiter High School, Alfred L. Watkins, is making his fourth trip with the Marching Trojan Band to the Tournament of Roses in 25 years. That is an amazing feat, considering there are more than 25,000 high school bands in America and getting selected even once by the tournament committee is an honor. In football parlance, this is like playing for a national championship every six years or so. These folks are that good.
At the invitation of Gary Markham, supervisor of instrumental music for the Cobb County School System, I went to Lassiter this week to watch them practice in preparation for the parade. I had never observed band practice before and I was struck by the intensity. The kids worked their tails off for three hours. If anybody thinks that playing in the band isn’t physically demanding, pick up a drum weighing 16 pounds and carry it for five miles and over two-and-a-half hours while not missing a beat. Not easy.
Lassiter’s band practice reminded me of football practice where the offense is at one end of the field while the defense works at the other end. Except in this case, it was the woodwinds and percussionists who were on the practice field first, learning to negotiate a sharp 70-degree turn like the one that will greet them on the parade route in Pasadena just before they appear on worldwide television. While this was going on, the brass practiced in the nearby Alfred L. Watkins Music Center. After 30 minutes, they swapped as the brass learned the tricky turning maneuver, and the woodwinds and percussionist worked on their music.
Then, the entire band assembled at the football stadium, marched continuously for the next hour and played the songs they will perform in the parade, stopping only when the staff heard a note or beat they didn’t like. (By the way, at the parade the band will perform “Strike Up The Band,” the Trojan Fight Song and a couple of selections from the Black-Eyed Peas, whatever that is.)
Band director Watkins, who has been on the job at Lassiter since 1982, runs a tight ship. His assistants, Laura Borchert and James Thompson, put the band through their paces. No talking. No nonsense. No wasted time or effort. No missteps that weren’t immediately corrected. If these two ever decide to change careers, they have all the makings of drill sergeants.
Watkins had assembled the kids before practice to remind them of the physical challenge that awaits them on New Year’s Day at the Tournament of Roses parade and told them to assume a “sense of urgency” about appearing before much of the world.
“In addition to the one billion people on television, there will be over one million lined up several rows deep along the parade route watching you closely as you play and pass by them.” The band members took that information in stride. I would have upchucked my lunch. It is just as well that I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. I would not be an asset to the band.
The longtime director critiqued the band’s performance at a recent parade in Atlanta. While he had not yet reviewed the video, he felt there was room for improvement. Review the video? For a band? You bet your piccolo the staff reviews the videotapes. That is how they get better.
Taking some 250 band members, chaperones, staff and instruments across the country for seven days — and on five airplanes, no less — is no small logistical or financial feat. The trip will cost well into six figures and the money is all privately raised, thanks to the efforts of hard-working band parents and a proud business community.
Cobb County is known for producing some of the finest sports teams in the state. But, don’t forget our high school bands. They are as good at what they do as are the sports teams and they deserve just as much recognition for their efforts.
As I was leaving band practice three hours later, Alfred Watkins told me, “This is hard work, but it will be worth it.” For a man who has taken four bands to the Tournament of Roses, he should know. He will get no argument from me.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139.